Belgian researchers discover a new snake family


It is very rare for a new family of vertebrates to emerge. Until Belgian and Finnish scientists recently redrew the family tree of the snake superfamily Elapoidea.

The Elapoidea superfamily surfaced 45-50 million years ago. It includes several snake families, accounting for over 700 species worldwide. Cobras and mambas are probably the best-known representatives from that superfamily. This extremely diverse group of snakes is a classic example of evolutionary radiation, whereby a large number of species emerge in a short period of time. The lineage of such groups is not usually easy to establish. The international research team of biologists from the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) in Brussels and the University of Helsinki, did however succeed by analysing a record number of over 4,600 genes. Usually, that dataset is limited to barely a dozen genes, so few precise familial relationships can be established.

The AfricaMuseum preserves some 17,000 snakes, the RBINS about 20,000. First, the skulls of a few collection specimens were scanned. This was followed by 'virtual dissection', in which each bone was virtually studied separately and morphological features between specimens were compared more closely. In addition to genetic data, the researchers used nanoCT and microCT scans.

The study was published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.